Rarest, Least Rare Consonant Sounds.

Something I have wondered about for some time now.

What is the rarest consonant SOUND in the world? I know some subsuharan African peoples have a clicking sound, which is unheard of, in European languages at least. But is that the rarest? There must be something even rarer than that. I suspect this question may have not been asked before. So feel free to speculate, when necessary.

And finally, what is the least rare consonant sound? For some reason I suspect it’s ‘B’, only because it’s the first consonant of many alphabets. But I could be wrong.



You are, sorry. Using letter frequency as a proxy for sound frequency, we see that the “B” sound is quite far down the frequency list in most European languages. The “B” sound represented by the character ब is also nowhere near the most common consonant in Hindi. I don’t know how to test the Chinese language for the frequency of “B” but I’m guessing it is not at the top.

What I think has misled you is the (somewhat arbitrary) placement of “B” as the first consonant in the roman alphabet and various alphabets related to it, such as Greek, (Classical) Arabic, Hebrew etc., which are all derived from the same Phoenician/Proto-Canaanite alphabet. But this ancient alphabetic order has nothing to do with sound frequency.

As far as I know, /k/ is the most common consonant sound worldwide.

The rarest might be one that occurred only in Ubykh or one of the Khoisan languages.

Epiglottal flap, voiceless palatal lateral affricate, and voiceless bilabial trill seem pretty under-represented in the scheme of things, to pick a few offhand examples.

I suspect the palatal tap (t or d) is near the top of the list for most common. Probably tied with k/g for first.

I’ve read that the common Czech or Hungarian men’s name “Jiri” (with a diacritical mark over the R that resembles a short-vowel symbol) is almost impossible to pronounce correctly by non-native speakers, because the “r” sound exists in very few other languages. The name is vaguely pronounced as “zhee-lee”, with the latter consonant being a sort of R/L hybrid.

For common, maybe look at consonants found in languages with only a few consonants? I see here that one Rotokas language only has six consonants.

The Czech ř, the voiced alveolar fricative trill, is a pretty clever discovery, to find a way to produce two consonants simultaneously with the same tongue action. On the tongue’s underside it makes a trilled /r/ near the teeth, while its upper side is raised near enough the hard palate that it makes a fricative [ʒ]-like sound.

I would have guessed that “m” is the most common consonant, on the grounds that it’s typically the first consonant that infants learn to say (yes, “ma-ma” means “mother”, but that’s because it’s what infants say).

It looks like languages without nasals are pretty darn rare, with some question as to whether those typically said to have none actually don’t.

Anybody else have a sore throat now from trying to imitate the sound recordings of all those weird consonants Johanna linked to? :smack:

My roommate thought I was going crazy when I started studying phonetics and phonology.

I took Spanish in high school, and I never could do the “LL” or “RR” sound. I later lived briefly in the Four Corners region, and Navajo has a sound similar to “LL” but it’s written as LL with a slash through it.

Voiced aspirated stops, e.g. the bilabial [bʱ], are rare. They occur in Sanskrit and its relatives. Other than those, Wikipedia mentions as having such phonemes: two click languages including ǃXóõ (which has perhaps the most phonemes of any language in the world); and Kelabit (spoken by a few thousand people in the highlands of Borneo).

It’s possible to identify the rarest sounds, but I think it may not be possible to rank consonent frequencies across languages.
There would be too many arbitrary decisions regarding how to count consonents; how similar do they need to be to count as the same thing? What if in one language a consonant has a degree of flexibility about its pronunciation but in another that same set of sounds are considered separate?

For that matter, are we counting rarity by number of languages that contain it, number of speakers who use it, how often it’s used in a language, or how often it’s spoken?

A clicking sound” is an understatement. The most click-y one has more than a hundred, but even the least clicky Southern African click language has at least 3.

And I wouldn’t say they’re unheard of in European languages. They’re just not part of formal vocabulary as distinct phonemes, but* tsk! *and smooch and horse trot noise are common enough for all that.

Decades ago I read a Guinness entry that said this was the rarest consonant sound in the world. Don’t know if it was true then, if ever.

But the Wiki article lists several languages that have that trill. Whereas many ǃXóõ click consonants only occur in that language, not even any related Khoisan languages. And, at 2,500 speakers, I can safely say is a much rarer language than the 10.7 million Czech speakers (hell, that exact trill occurs in the name of one of themost famous Czechs of all time…). So no, it was never true.